There are two major types of materials for cameos. One material, as we have seen in a previous article, is shell. The other material that is used to carve cameos is gemstones. Cameos carved from gem material are said to be "Hardstone Cameos". The term "hardstone" refers to any opaque stones used in making cameos, such as agate, carnelian, onyx, etc.
Hardstone cameos are more durable and very difficult to carve than shell cameos; so they are much more expensive than shell cameos. For this reason, they are said by many jewelers to be a finer type of cameo than their shell-based counterparts.
Agate is the most popular gemstone for carving cameos. Agate is micro-crystalline quartz. It is popular because of its durability. Ancient Greek and Roman jewelers carved cameos out of agate. The oldest agate cameo found dates back to around 200 B.C.
Agate also comes in a variety of different colors. The most popular colors used in recent history have been blue or green. Many modern cameos are made from banded agate, which simply means that the agate has naturally formed bands of color running through it.
Modern day agate cameos are primarily carved in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. They are often carved ultrasonically or using dental tools!
Coral is another colorful cameo stone, and was popular during the Victorian era as a symbol of good luck. Coral also been used in ancient times for good luck. Ever seen pictures of Egyptian scarabs [beetles carved into coral and worn as jewelry]? Today old coral cameos are rare and expensive!
Other gemstones have also been used to carve cameos. Cameos have also been carved from opal, lapis, emerald, amethyst and ruby. These types of cameos are the most costly.
Hardstone cameos have been carved in gemstone since ancient times and used on helmets and military accessories like breastplates and sword handles, on rings and other jewelry, and on vases, cups and dishes. During the Middle Ages, Pope Paul II was an avid cameo collector. Napoleon, who started a school to teach the art of cameo carving in Europe, loved cameos.
The most popular motif for a cameo carved from gemstone is the profile of a woman. However, because it is "tougher" than a shell cameo, many themes could be carved into agate and other "hardstones". These themes included: gods/goddesses, mythology, birds and flowers. The most valued gemstone cameos, however, are "metamorphic" ones. These include several subjects, such as a woman and a flower, within one carving. These are also called art cameos.
Because hard stone cameo fakes were able to be mass produced after the Industrial Revolution, you must go to a reputable cameo carver or jewelry dealer to find one. Then, before you buy, examine your hardstone cameo carefully. As stated in a previous article on shell cameos, the stone should be without major cracks or chips. In recent years, people have tried to fake a cameo, (which is carefully carved from one material); by gluing a carved face from one material onto a different material of another background color! This is particularly true of hardstone cameos. Ask a trusted jeweler specializing in cameos to examine the cameo under a microscope to be sure
The care for gemstones/cabochon cameos is the same as it is for shell cameos, although shell cameos are more delicate. Again, as stated in a previous article on shell cameos, all cameos will require special care. Cameos should be dusted and after you dust it, you may rinse the cameo with warm water, drying it afterward with a soft cotton cloth. They should be oiled at least once a year. It is recommended that one use mineral oil. Olive oil, if it is not completely removed, may turn a cameo yellow. You should always avoid using soap, harsh cleaners or commercial jewelry cleaners.
Remember, use a light hand! Do not scrub the cameo! And do not leave it to soak! Cameos must be stored in a clean, dry place, away from heat and bright lights. It is preferable that the jewelry box containing the cameo be lined. Follow the above guidelines and you will enjoy your gemstone cameo for many years to come!
Preston Reuther is a Master Wire Sculptor and certified appraiser that has been collecting, buying and selling cameos for close to 20 years. He has written several e-books and produced over 130 jewelry making videos. Visit his antique cameo collection at www.cameojewelry.com or contact him at his studio in St. Joe Missouri